Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre is of “national concern”, says prisons watchdog

A new report has foud that the conditions at the immigration detention centre have seriously deteriorated, making it "a place of national concern".

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Controversial immigration center Yarl’s Wood has been branded “a national concern” in a new scathing report by the prisons watchdog. Nick Hardwick, chief prisons inspector, said that “Yarl’s Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held.” Health care services at the centre have declined “severely” and pregnant women are still being held at the facility against government policy. 

The centre, located in Bedfordshire, had over 350 detainees at the time of inspections in April and May. The vast majority of detainees are single women who have already experienced traumatic events such as rape and some are fleeing war and persecution. Home Office policy states pregnant women should not normally be detained but 99 were held at Yarl’s Wood in 2014. Only nine were ultimately removed from the UK. Other women have been held for more than a year because of “unacceptable” delays in processing their cases. In one case, a woman was held for 17 months.

Since the centre opened in 2001 it has been beset by problems. The last inspection completed in 2013 concluded that the situation was improving, but Mr. Hardwick said it has since deteriorated and is understaffed.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found 45 per cent of female detainees felt “unsafe” due to the uncertainty of their immigration status, poor health care and having too few visible staff. Inspectors also revealed that violent incidents have increased, with the number of reported assaults trebling in a year. In one incident, an officer repeatedly struck at least two women with his shield as staff attempted to remove a detainee.

Several complaints which have been made in the past, such as male staff entering women’s rooms without knocking, sexually inappropriate comments from staff, “sexual contact” and abuse were brought up again. However, it is worth noting that the HMIP did not find evidence of widespread abuse. There were also complaints that the care planning for women with complex needs is so poor that it puts them at risk and pharmacy services are “chaotic”.

Inspectors raised particular concerns about the length of time some women were being held for and the detention of vulnerable inmates “without clear reason”. Mr. Hardwick called for “decisive action” to ensure women are only detained as “a last resort.” In the last six months, 894 women were released back into the community, more than double the number (443) that were removed from the UK. The report went on to say that this “raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place.”

There were some positive findings. HMIP said the facility was clean, most detainees said staff treated them with respect and recreational facilities and access to the internet were good. Serco, which has run Yarl’s Wood since 2007, said it was “working very hard” to increase the number of female staff members. John Shaw of G4S, which provides health services, said the firm is “reconfiguring” the service to address a “growing number of more complex medical requirements” at the centre. An NHS England spokeswoman said they had been working closely with G4S to “ensure that rapid progress is made to achieve the high standards we expect.” She added they have “action plans” in place to address the concerns raised during a recent inspection and they will be reviewed in the light of the new report.

Maurice Wren, the chief executive for Refugee Council, has called for the closure of Yarl’s Wood. He said, “The fact that people fleeing war and persecution are being locked away indefinitely in a civilised country is an affront to the values of liberty and compassion that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our democracy.”

June Eric-Udorie is a 17-year-old writer whose writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan and the New Statesman among others.

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